Citizen Kane is a marvelous film. It brings such depth and complexity to a relatively simple story that there is always something new to see every time you watch it. At the heart of Citizen Kane is Charles Foster Kane, or more accurately the mystery of Charles Foster Kane. It is always amazing to me how much information the film provides, while simultaneously providing so little. After watching Citizen Kane, no matter how many times, we know everything and yet nothing about Charles Foster Kane.
The film begins with a newsreel, telling about Charles Foster Kane’s death and giving an overview of his life. As it finishes, the director decides they don’t have enough material so he sends out Thompson (William Alland) to figure out what exactly Kane meant by his last word: “rosebud.” He goes around to everyone who knew Kane, and gets contradictory and incomplete reports of him. He reads the memoirs of Kane’s guardian, Mr. Thatcher (George Coulouris), visits his business manager, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), speaks with his best friend, Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), and his second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). Lastly, he travels to Kane’s palatial home Xanadu, in Florida, views his possessions, and questions his butler (Paul Stewart). This turns up everything and nothing, as Thompson hears many perspectives on Kane, but not what Rosebud explicitly means.
The themes Kane delves into are powerful. First and foremost, it is a movie about the individual. Though it concerns itself with discerning Charles Foster Kane’s character, the film concludes that this is impossible. Even when Thompson has heard all the stories from the people who knew him, he’s still at a loss to find out one fact that sums him up. He finds out a lot of things about him, but he never gets the complete truth of who he is. It’s a powerful testament to humanity, that Thomspon can’t figure Kane out. It says there’s always something about an individual that is going to elude the understanding of others. Even at the end, when the camera seems to give us all the answers by showing us the meaning of Rosebud, we can fool ourselves into thinking that explains everything about Kane, but it doesn’t. We still don’t know why he feels this way, or why this feeling seems to influence some actions in his life and not others. Another theme is of course, the corruption of greed. Kane is so interested in seeking admiration and power for himself that pushes away anyone that ever could have loved him.
It may seem strange for me to be reviewing this film, as I can hardly have anything new to say about the film that been called “the greatest of all time” so consistently. I don’t know if anyone is going to get any use out of anything I’ll be writing here, but then again, when do I ever. The thing is, despite the legend and the perceptions surrounding it, Citizen Kane is still a really entertaining film. If you’re of a mind to, you can just simply watch it, without getting too analytical and still be entertained. Though some may dislike it because it’s the “greatest ever,” or be put off in some other way, or go in the opposite direction and get all pretentious, I just want to make this clear. It’s a good movie, and well as a great film. I still enjoy it, after I’ve seen it at least ten times, despite all of the crazy perceptions surrounding it.
One reason this is such a famous film is it combines a lot of interesting and innovating techniques all in one place. Welles and cinematography Greg Tolland make great use of deep focus photography throughout. Depending on what you read, it had shown up in movies before, but nevertheless it’s used to such a great effect here. Deep focus is when everything in the shot is in focus, as opposed to shallow focus where an actor’s face (or some other object) is in focus while everything else is blurry. I’m already biased towards this effect because it makes for a more visually interesting film. It allows you to look over and explore every inch of the frame, but even if you’re not a fan, you can’t deny that it has a purpose here. In Kane, it’s mostly used to convey a bunch of information all at once. There are numerous examples, but let’s take the famous shot near the beginning where Mr. Thatcher is coming to get Kane. You can see Thatcher and Mrs. Kane (Agnes Moorehead) in the foreground, the father protesting in the middle ground, and way out in the background you can see young Kane playing with his sled, a last glimpse of innocence before it is corrupted by money.
Another is the sound design. Welles, coming from radio, realized he could create the illusions in the film with the help of sound. Though many of the sets in Xanadu weren’t actually that big, they were covered in darkness and the voices of the actors were amplified to make it seem like they were speaking in a huge room. Another interesting aspect of the sound design is how it is used to facilitate scene transitions. A good example of this is towards the beginning. Mr. Thatcher starts out saying “Merry Christmas” in one scene when Kane is still a boy, and finishes with “and a Happy New Year” in another when Kane is all grown up. While this isn’t the most thematically significant thing in the entire world, it is a nice trick to get us from one scene to another.
On a more personal note, there is one part of this film that always stuck with, more so than the rest of it: Kane’s second wife and her singing career. As someone plagued by stage-fright, I’ve always heavily sympathized with her. Kane forces her, night after night, to get up on stage in front of hundreds of people, who only clap half-heartedly because Kane is making them. It’s a terribly uncomfortable and embarrassing situation for anyone to be in, especially someone who knows they can’t sing and isn’t too invested in being able to either. Even though some aspects of Comingore’s performance seem kind of dated, I think she captures this feeling of unease well. (This is one of my only complaints with the film, another is that I think the aging makeup could have been done better, but this amounts to little because the performances pick up the slack.)
Citizen Kane is a deep and enthralling film. It combines technique and thematic depth perfectly. There are a few small things off with the film, but they barely amount to anything. I’ve barely even scratched the surface here; there are so many great things in this film. No matter how many times I watch this film, I always find something new, and beneath it all, there’s the deep and impenetrable mystery of Charles Foster Kane’s character. That’s more than enough to keep me watching for a long time to come.
Long story short: 4/4 stars
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